By Bob Blancato and Ellie Hollander
Members of Congress are in their home states and districts this month for recess, and when they return to Washington, they’ll have their work cut out for them. With the current federal fiscal year ending on September 30, there will only be a few short weeks during which Congress must forge agreement on funding levels for the entire federal government, including the critical programs that serve our nation’s seniors. Funding cuts for Meals on Wheels and meals served at senior centers — which currently represent approximately one fiftieth of 1 percent of the entire federal budget — put a unique and vital lifeline for millions of vulnerable older adults at risk.
The time is now to compel Congress to #SaveLunch for senior nutrition programs, and here are four good reasons why:
1. The need is grave and growing. Today in the United States, 1 in 6 people age 65 and older, or 10.2 million in total, struggles with hunger. For perspective, that means the number of hungry Americans 65 and older is greater than the populations of 42 individual states. Despite this daunting hunger figure — which has more than doubled since 2001 — we are only reaching 2.4 million older adults each year. With the demographic swing already in motion and our country’s older population on track to double in size by 2050, the gap will only widen between those in need and those we are able to serve.
2. Funding remains inadequate. Funding has neither kept pace with inflation nor the growth in our population of older Americans. On top of federal funding cuts, senior nutrition programs are also facing state and local budget cuts, increasing transportation and food costs, unprecedented demand for services and smaller private donations in a slow economy. This shortfall has had significant impact in every state, ranging from cutting critical services and/or hours/days of operation, to initiating or expanding existing waiting lists and in some cases, closing down local programs altogether.
3. Hunger and isolation have serious health consequences. Older adults are among our most vulnerable populations, with 1 in 4 living alone and 50 percent at risk for malnutrition — meaning they lack enough proper nutrients in their diet. Inadequate nutrition exacerbates existing health conditions, accelerates physical and mental impairment and impedes recovery from illness, injury and/or surgery. In fact, a hungry older person has the same functional limitations as someone who is 14 years older.
The effects of loneliness can be just as devastating. Studies comparing the impact to other well-known risk factors, such as obesity and substance abuse, show that social isolation’s health effects are the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is also associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure.
4. Nutrition programs for older adults are a wise investment. Nutrition programs for people 65 and older save significant taxpayer dollars by providing the combination of proper nutrition and socialization that enables older adults to remain healthier and independent in their own homes, where they want to be. These programs help prevent unnecessary trips to the emergency room, reduce hospital admissions and readmissions and delay or eliminate placement in a long-term care facility, all of which save billions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid expenses. In fact, someone can receive Meals on Wheels for a full year for about the same cost as just one day in a hospital or ten days in a nursing home.
The simple truth is this: Too many older adults are left behind, alone and hungry in their struggle to stay independent and healthy at home. Every year that we don’t invest fully in these proven programs, we’re falling farther and farther behind. That’s why now is the time to reach out to Congress and urge them to #SaveLunch.
Learn how you can help #SaveLunch for millions of older adults at www.savelunch.org.